The Spies We Can’t Live Without

Most of us just want a private, comfortable life, in which we can enjoy the conveniences of modern society while pursuing our own personal happiness. The problem is, the conveniences of modern society we covet are secretly making our lives increasingly less private. Many times, we don’t even know they’re tracking us.

The typical American has a cell phone or smart device within arms reach almost 24 hours a day. Consider the fact that most of us carry a cell phone on our person throughout the day, only to plug them in at our bedsides at night.

Barely a moment passes in which we are disconnected from our phones, and even if we are, there’s another piece of technology nearby to take its place. With smart TVs, Bluetooth speakers, Alexa-enabled light bulbs, and a host of sensors in each, Alexa, Google, and Facebook are never far away.

Most of us are aware that big tech companies love our data. In fact, they love it so much, they skirt the very boundaries of laws to get it. In fact, sometimes, they just blow right past the boundaries and illegally harvest it, indifferently daring us to stop it.

In 2010, a school district in PA came under fire after it was learned that the school-issued laptops were being remotely and surreptitiously activated by high school officials. Using the laptop’s webcam, students were being watched in their own homes! In fact, pictures of the students, chat logs, and internet histories were also harvested without permission.

The idea that hotels, fitting rooms, and bathrooms could potentially be “Bugged” is a reality most of the world has come to accept in the name of advancing technology, apparently, we can even rationalize a school district spying on high school students in their own bedrooms.

Although we are all aware of the abilities of technology, very few of us suspect it to be used against us. We assume the technology we buy voluntarily is safe for use.

When we go out and buy a brand new 75-inch flat-screen smart TV for our living room, we assume the “Smart” portion of the name is indicative of its ability to connect to the internet. This is the ability that provides it the functionality to watch streaming services and movies, and download the information for our handy TV listings channel, right?

As it turns out, the ability to connect to the internet can also support more functions than we realized. The fine print in Samsung’s EUA mentions that they will be recording your voice and living room conversation and transmitting it to a third party.  Well, ok then.

I’ll take the Phillips TV instead, or the LG, or the Vizio, anyone but Samsung! Bad news. They all do it on some level. Vizio collected data such as sex, age, income, marital status, home value, and the size of your household. That information was then sold to third parties.

If this information comes as a shock, perhaps the next product will not. After all, we buy them specifically to listen to us, answer our questions, turn on our lights, start our robot vacuums, and a whole host of other services.

Yes, that modern technological marvel we call a smart speaker! Whether Alexa, Google, or some other companies offering, they all function in a similar manner. They record our speech in an effort to answer our questions or perform an automated task.

Those recordings are then dumped, right? Nope. Take a moment to review the history on your device, and you’ll find recordings of your queries complete with the ambient background noise. It can include conversations, music, and even the sounds emanating from your brand new 75-inch smart TV.

That data alone can paint a good picture of your life without even considering the number of times your smart speaker starts recording without prompting, which happens frequently. Those recordings can be shared with a third party by Amazon, without anonymizing them. Those recordings are also held until you delete them yourself.

Google’s smart speaker is equally invasive, but because they are so integrated into our lives, we cannot just discuss their home assistant. Google runs our search engines on our phones and computers, our e-mail, and our smart homes.

In fact, Google tracks your purchases by watching your Gmail accounts. That’s right, it scans all of your emails. It also keeps recordings of your voice every time you say “OK Google.” Those can all be accessed through your phone.

While you’re at it, I suggest checking in on Google Maps. Why Google Maps? Well, it turns out, Google has a record of your whereabouts, broken down by day, saved in its history. If you want to, you can explore what you did, where you went, and how long you stayed at a place on any given day just by looking in the right spot. Consult Google to find out how to turn it off, but, be aware, they’ll save that query as well.

After you’ve digested all of this information, deleted all the recordings where possible, erased your tracks, and turned off tracking on Google Maps, then you can look into the information Facebook gathers on a daily basis. I’d get into it here, but that would take a whole new article. Welcome to the world of technology. Leave your privacy at the door.